The three young men were in a parked car in Norfolk, singing along to a Lil Bibby rap song, lost in a haze of smoke and live-streaming the moment to their Facebook friends.
A rattle of gunfire ended the jam session. The phone fell from a wounded man’s hands and landed on the floorboard, the camera pointing to an empty seat.
Thirty shots, maybe more. Twenty seconds. Three men shot.
The music stopped, but the live-stream kept going, capturing the disembodied voices of bystanders who rushed to help and of a paramedic giving a clinical tour of the victim’s bullet wounds.
Tuesday evening’s shooting in this Virginia port city, 200 miles from Washington, critically wounded one man and injured two others less severely. It also was the latest violent act to be broadcast as it happened, a trend that seems to be growing in the three months after Facebook made Live available to all of its 1.65 billion users.
On the other side of Norfolk, 24-year-old Raven Campbell took a break from studying for nursing school and clicked on the streaming video of a middle school friend. She was too late to hear the shots but in time to hear bystanders urging the victims to stay alert.
“It’s scary. You hear about stuff like that happening but you never see it this close to home,” Campbell said. “But if it wasn’t for the video, I’d never have known it was him.”
Video is now a routine part of policing and crime, an invaluable tool used by officers, many of whom wear cameras on their lapels, but also by residents and groups seeking to hold police accountable for excessive force or other wrongdoing.
But live-streaming adds a new dimension to the already crowded world of social media, elevating the viewer from observer to voyeur, a participant helpless to intervene.
A man in Chicago was fatally shot last month while live-streaming, and a Florida man’s armed standoff with Tampa police also went live.
In Minnesota this month, live-streaming brought people into the car with Diamond Reynolds moments after a police officer shot her boyfriend, Philando Castile, during a traffic stop.
Her calm narration of the shooting she called unjustified, streamed as a bloodied Castile was beside her, helped propel the case into the national consciousness and prompted demonstrations and protests over the use of deadly force.
The cases pose new challenges to Facebook, which counts among its earlier live-stream hits two Buzzfeed employees wrapping rubber bands around a watermelon and a Texas mom wearing a Chewbacca mask.
But other live videos have turned graphic, sometimes disturbing. Facebook Live broadcast the confession of alleged French terrorist Larossi Abballa and parts of last week’s sniper attack on police in Dallas.
Norfolk police declined to comment on the live-streaming aspect of the case other than to acknowledge that the video did in fact depict the shooting. Police did not comment on a motive, and as of Wednesday evening, no arrests had been made.
Facebook said it grants its moderators discretion to leave up graphic videos they deem newsworthy and will closely monitor for removal content showing bullying, suicide, nudity and harassment.
A Facebook official said the Norfolk shooting was left up because it is classified as content shared to “condemn violence,” which falls within standards.
Facebook Live videos are recorded within the site’s mobile app and appear directly on the streamer’s Facebook wall, just as recorded video, photos and other statuses do.
Facebook also lets its users subscribe to their friends’ live videos and receive alerts when they begin streaming again.
The Rev. Keith Ivan Jones, pastor of Norfolk’s Shiloh Baptist Church, called what he saw on the video “insane.” One one hand, he said, it demonstrates “the real lack of appreciation some have for life” and “brings home to people who are somewhat sheltered from this reality that there is no escaping this violence. I hope it heightens the resolve of what needs to be done.”
But Jones, who last month led a town-hall meeting with Norfolk police and residents to call for a stop to shootings, wondered whether all the videos, live-streamed or not, have “anesthetized us from the shock of violence right before our eyes. We’ve gotten so used to seeing these things that I’m wondering if it’s hurting us anymore.”
The Facebook video — viewed more than 358,000 times by late Wednesday afternoon — was uploaded to a Facebook page under the name T.J. Williams. It prompted an outpouring of grief and offerings of peace from friends and strangers alike, many posted as the wounded men waited for ambulances to arrive. Facebook declined to say how many people watched live.
“Hope you good man,” one note read.
“Come on tj get up bro,” another person wrote. “Prayers going up” was followed by “Damn man.”
Campbell, the nursing student who joined in the live feed, added her own comment as the drama unfolded: “Omg TJ pull thru I’m praying for u.” In an interview, she added, “I hope they all pull through.”
Not everyone took kindly to the live-stream.
A woman who posted to Williams’s Facebook page identified herself as Kristian Jefferson. “So yesterday it was all over my news feed about 3 boys who got shot while on live feed,” she wrote. “It sucks to wake up and find out that one of them you actually knew and use to be mad cool with in high school. This world is so cruel. I refuse to watch that video!”
A man named Darius wrote: “I just cried for the first time in a long time. Somebody need to take those videos down that s---- ain’t for FB everybody need to chill . . . fellas God gone work his magic.”
Darius added that the Lil Bibby song the victims were singing along to — “Word Around Town” — will not be easy to listen to: “That song will never just be another song anymore.”
The man in the video has barely finished one of the song’s lines, “Word around town is we got them pounds,” when the shooting begins and the phone drops.
There is a haunting silence followed by a voice: “Call the ambulance, please.” It is unclear whether the person speaking is one of the wounded or a bystander.
Another man’s voice: “I love you, nephew. Stay relaxed.”
One man dominates. “Stay with me. Keep listening to my voice. They’re coming to get you. Everybody’s got ambulances. Here they come. Hear them? They’re coming to get you all. Focus on me. Don’t move. . . stay with me. You’re all right.”
Muffled voices of paramedics can soon be heard, talking about stretchers and vital signs, the phone still live-streaming from the car’s floorboard, still showing an empty seat.
“He’s hit in the right shoulder, the right arm, the cheek,” a paramedic says of one victim. “That’s all I see right now.” Of another victim, he says, “One shot to the right temple, bullet out the nasal passage.”
In the last post on Williams’s Facebook post, just before the live-stream, he asked, “Who out da hood.”
Nearly a full day later, the video still remained at the top of his page.
Justin Wm. Moyer contributed to this report.